Return of the Strings
Every morning during A period, the campus echoes with the faint sound of the composers Charles Dancla or Clara Schumann. Playing 19th century string trios and contemporary fiddle tunes, the classical recital comes from Mr. Meyer’s classroom, where students are busy practicing their pieces for the new Cavalier Concert Orchestra—the first official orchestra at DA in decades.
Strings programs have a complicated history at Durham Academy. According to Mr. Meyer, the music teacher at DA, “there had been strings at some point in the school’s history, but by the time [he] arrived [in 2003], they were no longer there.” Instead, an unofficial chamber group rose to fill that void.
“There were a couple of really interested students who played string instruments,” said Mr. Meyer. “They played with DUSS [Duke University String School], they played with Triangle Youth Orchestra, they played with Mallarmé, and they wanted to do something at DA, so we started this Chamber Music Ensemble at lunch. It was the first lunchtime music ensemble.”
But the new program was hardly ideal. Problems were apparent from the start, mainly with attendance. “It was a tough commitment to ask of the people to give up their lunch once a week,” said Jack Anderson, a former chamber member and now one of the first students of the orchestra program. Shruthi Gopalan, a former violist in the ensemble, agreed. “I think a lot of people valued finishing assignments or tests or talking to teachers a little higher than they valued coming to chamber,” she said.
Mr. Meyer had his complaints as well. “Without it being a consistent thing, especially for all of our string players who play elsewhere and take private lessons, [it’s] really difficult to give them an experience that’s gonna make it worth their while to show up,” he said.
Determined to provide a proper strings program at the Upper School, Mr. Meyer closed the lunchtime group indefinitely and installed the official Cavalier Concert Orchestra in its place. “We had to start somewhere,” he said. “So when we offered it as a class in the spring, I told Mr. Regnerus [the registrar], ‘I will teach it with two kids. I don’t care.’”
The new orchestra is indeed a very small class. But according to the four students in the orchestra—three violinists and a pianist—it’s going remarkably well. “It’s a more organized environment,” Anderson said. “The members of the orchestra really care about the music, and we have a lot of fun learning about music theory and playing beautiful music.”
With a class size of four, the Cavalier Concert Orchestra is one of the smallest classes ever offered at DA. “Because there’s so [few] people, I like that we can actually work on stuff in detail,” said Annie Ma, a ninth grader and a member of the new orchestra program. But she does wish the orchestra were larger. “In my other orchestra [at my previous school], there was about thirty-something people, so it doesn’t really feel like a traditional orchestra,” she said. “And I wish more people would join so they could hide my mistakes.”
Fortunately, Mr. Meyer doesn’t plan his orchestra to stay small for too long. “In any of my ensembles, it’s never the intent for it to stay small,” he said. “If it’s four people, we can make it work. If it’s twenty people, we can make it work. My first year at DA, the chorus had only 11 kids in it, but we made it work. We did what we needed to do.”
In his classroom, the organized calendar on the whiteboard shows Cavalier Concert Orchestra to be the fifth class Mr. Meyer teaches at Durham Academy, on top of the four lunchtime groups he already leads. Though he admits managing so many music groups is difficult, he is happy to do it. “There’s plenty of time when I am flying by the seat of my pants,” he said. “But they’re good experiences, and I want the kids to have them, so we do what we’ve gotta do. I do what I can, and I enjoy what I do.”
The new orchestra plans to perform in the winter and spring concerts, playing their own pieces and hopefully collaborating with other groups like Women’s Ensemble. It also plans to join the other Cavalier Concert programs in visiting the Middle School in March, the month for selecting courses. “Hopefully the string players [in the Middle School] will see that they have that choice,” Mr. Meyer said.
To those aspiring young musicians, Anderson had some words of advice. “For all of you string players out there that have that extra class period and don’t know what to do with it, I highly recommend orchestra. It’s a great class, you have fun, and you make beautiful music.”